Drinking, Sexism and Box-Office Woes

Do studio executives spend much time in movie theaters? If they’ve cocked an ear to what is unquestionably the “talk-back generation,” they may have noticed a sharp shift of direction on the part of their audiences on a pair of very sensitive social subjects: relations between the sexes; drunkenness and/or alcohol as the screen sees it.

To be in the middle of an audience for “Arthur II,” “Rambo III,” “Die Hard,” “Bull Durham” or “Cocktail” is to catch a strong sense that a large and certainly very vocal segment simply hasn’t registered on the pulse-takers for the big studios. Not all film makers seem oblivious; the folks who calibrated “Die Hard” and the makers of “Bull Durham” seem--in very different ways--to know what’s been going on around them. But others keep pitching the same old line to the same expected audience and are striking out royally.

In the area of alcohol, or as it’s almost uniformly thought of these days, alcohol-and-drugs, the change has been recent and dramatic. The screen used to be awash with liquor. Cocktails were the stamp of the swells; no one noticed that Nick Charles was probably legally unfit to drive for most of his and Nora’s capers, or that the only logical end for most of the “glamorous” Hemingway or Fitzgerald crowd was clearly going to be a private sanitarium somewhere. The drinking of Audrey Hepburn when she played Holly Golightly in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was presented as part of her charm.

“The Lost Weekend” was the first real rebuttal to this prettified view, back in 1945. It was directed by Billy Wilder, with a Brackett/Wilder adaptation of Charles Jackson’s harrowing book and a musical score that alone would scare you sober. The next mass-audience message was “Days of Wine and Roses” in 1962, in which director Blake Edwards successfully pulled out all the stops, using J. P. Miller’s adaptation of his own successful television play.


Now we have “Clean and Sober” with wrackingly fine performances by Michael Keaton and Kathy Baker as a pair of recovering addicts, but until this picture, alcoholism/addiction didn’t have its 20-year update for a new film generation. Instead, in 1981, we had a detour: “Arthur,” where against all betting odds an alcoholic hero emerged as utterly lovable. This miracle of sorts was due to three personalities: writer-director Steve Gordon and the ineffable talents of Dudley Moore and John Gielgud.

But in what seems to have been a decade since “Arthur,” alcoholism has ceased to be even marginally funny, Steve Gordon died of a heart attack only a year after his movie’s runaway success and the touch that made Arthur what he was died with Gordon. If what one reads and hears and sees is any indication, about half the creative minds of Hollywood owe their salvaged creativity to their AA membership, but for “Arthur II” and his younger yuppie cousin in “Cocktail” there seems to be no reading of this at all--it’s bar business as usual.

“Arthur II” simply chooses to pretend that more than five years later and after prodigious amounts of alcohol consumption, Arthur wouldn’t have been dead or hospitalized. And somehow, these days, poetic license simply isn’t enough to cover this slippage. The people who make the movies know better; they should know that the audience does too.

For its part, poor “Cocktail” seems to be in a double fog of alcoholism and sexism. Heywood Gould’s novel, from which “Cocktail” was somehow sandblasted, was written in 1984. Almost everything has happened to the dating habits of the young and unencumbered since then, AIDS preeminently. Body-exchange bar life and killer drinking routines seem a lot less romantic--certainly more fraught with problems--than they did even in the early 1980s. And you treat macho behavior at your peril.

For just how perilously, try the mostly young preview audience for “Cocktail” at the Crest. Bryan Brown’s character, who will later be revealed as a hollow shell of a fella, has been filling young, impressionable Tom Cruise’s head with bartender wisdom, most of it to do with hunting rich women. Consequently, on nothing more than a dare from Brown, Cruise dumps Elisabeth Shue, his sweet, penniless ladylove, and heads out into the shark-infested waters of Older Women With Big Portfolios.

Worst of all, he offers Shue the mangiest excuse in life for his actions, that “a man can’t refuse a dare from his buddy, can he?” Well, not without risking the wrath, the hisses and the booing contempt of your target audience, apparently.

In this case, this preview audience may have been more attuned to social changes than the mass audience since in its first two weekends the film set box-office records for Disney.

It seems as though macho behavior is at last a very risky business to younger movie audiences. If Carolco executives, who released “Rambo III,” had been listening to the back talk Stallone was taking at every preview before the movie was released, they might have had their feet braced for the dive that John Rambo was heading for at the box office and in the hearts of his fans. Later, they launched that hilarious, super-soft alternative ad campaign, but the basic problem is that dumb muscles alone don’t do it anymore.

Executives seem enough aware of this over at “Die Hard” headquarters to give Bruce Willis a tough-but-tender persona: the blue-collar cop full of understanding when his wife’s fat corporate job moves her and the children to the Coast. Willis wins the schizophrenic macho award--doing stunts and cartoon leaps down the face of glass walls, all the while muttering: “I shoulda been more supportive. I shoulda been behind her more. She’s the best thing that’s happened to a bum like me.” In the context of this sleek, silly blood bath, such tendresse is pretty hilarious, but at least it’s in the ballpark.

Which brings us to “Bull Durham.” Susan Sarandon’s character, Annie, shot through with ‘60s sensibilities, seems to be in charge of her life and her considerable acumen. That she’s chosen to lavish all her talents in season-long increments on decades of young ballplayers is seen as a plus. But she’s also talked herself into believing that a stable relationship is beyond her. She hides the fact that she deserves it by pretending it’s the last thing in the world she wants.

What’s interesting about all this is the way writer-director Ron Shelton has sidestepped around this mine field, so that “Bull Durham” has the look of the new with only a few of the hang-ups of the old. And he does reward both Sarandon and Kevin Costner richly at the movie’s close.

What this all may mean is that some canny film makers are tuned into the attitudes of a new wave of moviegoer, who may or may not be on every studio’s demographic charts yet, but who should be. They are the 25-to-37-year-old men who are the first wave since the women’s movement, who believe as unreservedly in the straightforward rights of women as women themselves and who don’t check their beliefs at the door of the movie houses either.

I suspect it will be harder and harder for a “Cocktail” or a “Rambo” to succeed, because of this audience. What film makers are going to have to be careful about is that their new writers (and producers and directors) are at least as up to date as these audiences. They will join a small list whose sensibilities have been acute for a good while already: writer-directors James L. Brooks, George Lucas, Robert Benton, producers or directors Ron Howard, Robert Ellis Miller, Norman Jewison, Robert Redford, Sydney Pollack and Marty Ritt, the godfather of them all. But there will always be room at the top for more.

And from the way it feels, there will be increasing numbers of moviegoers there to appreciate the subtleties of their message.